Revivalists and renegades in South Florida’s Everglades
It begins as a subtle unzippering across the surface. Nothing more than shape and motion—forcing the brain to calculate distance to target, direction of movement, and speed of travel. These computations form the basis of what comes next: an attempt to drop a bottlecap-sized fly in the path of a rocket-sized fish. Results vary. But when all goes well that nebulous wake erupts in an airborne Everglades tarpon—thrashing and hanging in the sky for a brief moment, like a postcard image from a lost era.
Time moves slower in America’s largest subtropical wilderness. Miami is only an hour’s drive from the northern perimeter of Everglades National Park, but it may as well be on another continent. No crowded beaches or bustling nightclubs here, and fewer tourists in general. The park receives approximately a million visitors annually, about a fourth of Yellowstone’s yearly average. And that’s possibly because there’s less firm ground to stand on. The Everglade’s 1.5 million acres is spread across a liminal zone of in-between elements. Not fully water; not entirely land. But a mutual coexistence of interwoven grasses, mangroves, and unhurried flows. Due to its flat limestone geography, the pace of the swamp is lazy and lethargic. Pause there long enough and you’ll cross paths with creatures and plants you won’t find anywhere else. The otherworldly nature of the place swallows you whole. The Everglades makes a person feel small and vulnerable, but alive.
The park was officially established in 1947. Over the 72 years since, the Everglades has garnered other distinctions. It’s now an International Biosphere Reserve, a Wetland of International Importance, and a World Heritage Site. But even with those protections and accolades, it remains a troubled, expiring place.
Entire ecosystems don’t die suddenly or easily. They are born to endure, and for eons the Everglades had survived raging wildfires, biblical floods, and extended droughts. Then it met us. Symptoms of a sick Everglades can mostly be traced to human action, and in more recent times, inaction. The evidence is clear, and it is mounting. Today we have glad-handing politicians who’ve aided and abetted a state agricultural industry that continues to pollute and prosper. We have toxic blue-green algae blooms devastating tourism and killing plant and aquatic life along South Florida’s coastal communities. Last summer alone, 392 billion gallons of toxic discharge entered the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers after persistent rains forced lake operators to relieve the pressure on a brim-full Okeechobee. And these past two years, we’ve watched as the worst red tides since 2016 annihilated millions of adult fish during a fifteen-month onslaught. By returning natural flows to the Everglades, these events can be abated. It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It will require the construction of a new storage reservoir and water-treatment facility. And in a roundabout way, it will give the cause of it all—people—a chance to test a cure.
It’s about time. Anyone who’s been around long enough to remember how the tarpon fishing was 30 or 40 years ago will tell you it’s as close to being lost as the endangered Florida panther. They’ll say that human progress in South Florida has come with a price. In the Everglades, that toll is being exacted on the same plants, animals, and wild spaces that it was created to protect. A tangled web of corruption, deception, and brilliantly played capitalism has come together to cast an ominous shadow over the park. The rich got richer. Their politicians got elected and reelected. The peoples’ Everglades got sick. And here we are now.
“I’d say that we have about 10 percent of our fisheries left in the Everglades,” says Hal Chittum, owner of Chittum Skiffs and a longtime soldier in the fight to bring the Everglades back to a semblance of its former self. “And frankly, I can’t fish there anymore. I can’t go into Everglades National Park. I can’t go into Florida Bay. I can’t stand to see what’s been lost. It’s too sad.”
BEFORE HUMANITY arrived on the scene, the primordial Everglades covered most of South Florida, beginning at the chain of lakes resting below what is now Orlando. Those waters fed the Kissimmee River. The Kissimmee filled Lake Okeechobee to the south. And the big lake fed the “River of Grass”—the term Marjory Stoneman Douglas used in her 1947 book to describe the Everglades, because of how the water looked as it moved through sawgrass marshlands and cypress swamps, delivering pristine freshwater to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Today, much of that historic north-south flow is non-existent, due to a century’s worth of dredging and filling across 80 percent of the original Everglades (see City Limits, PG 106). The national park is supposed to protect the 20 percent that remains.
Schemes to drain and sell the swamp began in earnest in the early 1900s, by developers, politicians, and industrialists alike. But it was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that successfully brought the Everglades to heel, via its intricate water-control projects. The Corps’ victory in its war on nature set the stage for the bustling South Florida we now know. SoFlo boasts the highest concentration of golf courses anywhere on earth. Its agricultural lands produce more than just those small, white sugar packs at your local greasy spoon—all told, the Sunshine State is responsible for one out of every five teaspoons of American sugar. The region also has more than seven million residents, and it sees about 40 million annual tourists.
The Everglades bears these burdens squarely between its shoulders in the form of Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater entrapment. Michael Grunwald, in his revelatory book The Swamp, writes that, “…man’s most dramatic alteration of the ecosystem was his disruption of its natural water regime. Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of the Everglades, was now cut off from the ecosystem’s circulatory system. The transverse glades and other natural outlets that had been the veins of the Everglades had been deepened and widened to drain the water that had been the lifeblood….”
The Everglades owes its anatomical disarray to some byzantine plumbing. In contemporary times, Lake Okeechobee has served as South Florida Water Management District’s toilet bowl, blocking the historic flow of fresh, clean water into the River of Grass, while pooling chemical-loaded runoff from surrounding agricultural lands. That stagnant, noxious water, under the right photosynthetic conditions, fuels algal blooms. And blue-green algae—also known as cyanobacteria—has become a silent, redolent killer.
While these unhealthy blooms have been documented for nearly 40 years, evidence of its deadly side rose significantly in 2016, when the Corps released billions of gallons of iffy Okeechobee water through two different arms of the lake—through the southwest arm into the Caloosahatchee River, which runs west, entering the Gulf of Mexico about 10 miles south of Fort Myers; and through the lake’s eastern arm into the St. Lucie River, which flows southeast to the Indian River Lagoon near Stuart and eventually out to Florida’s Treasure Coast. The blooms that followed inundated outlet canals with bacteria mats resembling upchucked guacamole. When South Florida’s blue-green algae problem reached a crescendo that summer, killing fish and closing beaches, officials declared a state of emergency in four counties. On the Treasure Coast, one Stuart resident noted that the whole ordeal smelled like “death on a cracker.” Around that same time, another Stuart resident, Michael Mauri, was just getting to know his new backyard via a flats skiff.
Mauri, a German-born flyfishing guide, met his American wife, Emily, eight years ago at the Fly Fishing Show in Somerset, New Jersey. After spending several springs exploring the Keys together, the couple left the Northeast and moved to South Florida so Michael could grow his business on the diverse inshore waters of the St. Lucie estuary—home to snook, tarpon, false albacore, and some giant jacks.
The four-season abundance of Florida’s Treasure Coast fishery was the major draw. And that first summer, “the fishing was on fire,” Mauri says. “Snook and tarpon all over the place. I was just amazed there was no one out here. The reason was the blue-green algae. And when it began, we had no idea it was happening.” Living in Stuart, the Mauri’s have become experts on the topic of toxic sludge. Emily is the former Director of Angling Outreach at Bullsugar.org, a Stuart-based nonprofit dedicated to stopping the damaging discharges and restoring the flow of clean freshwater to Florida Bay. She continues to push for change via grassroots initiatives and by maintaining an active voice in the community, while Michael continues to spend his days on the water, instructing clients and putting them on fish, despite the looming environmental problems.
Bubbling off the water earlier this May, the issues remained glaring. “The whole northern side of the inlet was crystal-clear, pristine. The south has now turned nasty brown again,” Mauri says. “There’s this stark dividing line in the ocean that looks like it’s been cut with a knife.” Local officials reported that the stained water encountered in May had not originated from Lake Okeechobee, but instead had come from residual buildup in the St. Lucie Canal. “But it’s the same shit water,” Mauri adds. “So it really doesn’t make a difference where it comes from.”
Mauri says tarpon and snook have generally shown resilience to the blooms. But beyond fish worries, he increasingly fears for his and his family’s health. During the 2016 algae outbreak, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection tested the St. Lucie estuary and found toxin levels 10 times higher than what’s considered baseline hazardous to humans. One sample taken from the river’s north shore, in Stuart, found the toxin microcystin thriving at 110 parts per billion. Studies of microcystin link it to liver disease and various neurological disorders. The World Health Organization warns that levels above 10 parts per billion are dangerous to recreationists.
“This is a human health crisis,” Mauri says, “and these politicians treat it like it’s nothing. If you think about the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, they’re supposed to work for us, for the people. They’ve been doing the opposite. We have a new governor and new people in the political mix, but a lot of them are still just puppets,” he continues. “It’s endlessly infuriating.”
FRUSTRATIONS SHARED by many living in coastal communities across the state helped spur Florida’s recent political upheaval. In January 2019, Jacksonville-native Ron DeSantis (R) became this country’s youngest incumbent governor, at age 40, when he captured now-Senator Rick Scott’s empty seat. Once in office, DeSantis wasted no time gathering the state’s historically pro-sugar water board members and shoving them out the door, while vowing to pledge billions of new dollars to the environment. “We need a fresh start so we can move forward together as Floridians united,” Gov. DeSantis said, at a post-election event in Stuart. “These issues are things that really don’t fall on party lines.”
His bipartisan callout can be interpreted two ways: On the one hand, Everglades restoration does not stand a chance without unanimity. On the other, the Everglades has never stood a chance because both Republican and Democrat leaders have been acting like kids on Halloween—addicted to and abiding by Big Sugar for decades. Simply put, both parties have been equally culpable in the crime that is South Florida’s ecological demise. What’s changed, however, is optics. In the wake of Florida’s blue-green algae crisis, Big Sugar has taken some lumps. With beach communities shoveling out from under toxic algae, with fish turning belly up along both coasts, and with new science connecting the blooms to at-risk humans, politicos like DeSantis and his ilk have been distancing themselves from wealthy and powerful sugar donors such as Florida’s Fanjul brothers.
The Fanjul’s U.S. sugar brands include Domino, Florida Crystals, Redpath, Tate & Lyle, and C&H. And their biggest allies over the years have been politicians of all stripes. Although it’s not unheard of for brothers to have split political leanings, no two siblings in U.S. history have played both sides so skillfully. Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul swings Democrat. He served as co-chairman of Bill Clinton’s Florida campaign in 1992. He was also famously the first call Clinton took after bidding Monica Lewinsky adieu. His brother, Pepe, rolls in Republican circles. Both spend near equal amounts of money on their respective parties. Their efforts have served them well, to the tune of billions of dollars in government subsidies.
“It’s an embarrassing story that has gone on for many years and is only allowed to continue because of the greed of a few small groups of astonishingly wealthy sugar growers, big agricultural interests, and the corporations that benefit from them,” Chittum says. “It’s completely absurd when you examine how small the value of their product really is. Even more absurd is that Florida’s not even a good place to grow sugar cane.”
Chittum was born on a sprawling 50,000-acre ranch near Lake Marian, about 50 miles outside of Stuart. He worked as a Keys flats guide in 1970s, and he went on to co-found Hell’s Bay Boatworks in 1997. After selling Hell’s Bay, he took his skiff-crafting toolkit to Stuart, where he currently owns and operates Chittum Skiffs. An antihero in the war to save the Everglades, Chittum has never been afraid to speak out, even when it’s meant coming to philosophical blows with fellow South Florida guides. About a decade ago he teamed with flats guide John Kipp for a battle that would piss off half their friends in the form of a new management plan for the southern half of Florida Bay.
The Bay, over the years, has lost tens of thousands of acres of sea grass due to hyper-saline levels caused by a reduction in freshwater coming from the upper Everglades. Their fight for localized poll-and-troll zones (idle-speed only, no combustion engines) to keep large vessels off sensitive flats habitat has been a bare-knuckled, dragged-out effort, culminating in Florida Bay’s first pole-and-troll zone being proposed in October 2009 and established in January 2011—at Snake Bight, just east of Flamingo. In short, they ended up winning, while simultaneously losing the Bay. “When IGFA came on board to back the plan, Florida Bay collapsed,” Chittum says. “It’ll be great, if and when the fishery ever comes back.”
That’s assuming that the fishery hasn’t already reached the point of no return. Although poll-and-troll zones in Florida Bay help protect sensitive habitat, it’s generally agreed that the root of the cancer runs deeper and that opportunities for systematic healing lie farther north. The Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir Project (EAA) isn’t new in concept. It’s been envisioned, studied, and endlessly argued, and it’s been navigating requisite political hurdles since the latest plan was presented in the early 2000s.
SANDY MORET, owner of Florida Keys Outfitters, in Islamorada, has been beating the we-need-a-southern-reservoir drum for years. During his time on the water, as well as in boardrooms working with groups such as the Everglades Foundation and Now or Neverglades, he’s witnessed the loss of sea grass habitat in Florida Bay. He’s seen red tide rise with a vengeance, exacerbated by the blue-green algae blooms and killing millions of baitfish on the state’s southwest coast. And he’s watched as countless politicians have turned their backs on it all. But he remains a cautious optimist. Former Gov. Rick Scott, in 2017, signed Senate Bill 10 into law, bringing new life to the EAA project. “Scott begrudgingly signed the enactment to do it,” Moret says. “The course was continued degradation. The course was spiraling beyond repair. And even though the reservoir isn’t big enough, the course is being reversed.”
The gist of the EAA involves sending clean water to the Southern Everglades and to Florida Bay, while reducing the scummy discharges leaving Lake Okeechobee and inundating the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee rivers. Its marquee feature, the storage reservoir, is slated to occupy EAA lands bordering the southern end of the lake and it will be designed to hold 240,000 acre-feet of water, or about 78 billion gallons. That tainted water would then get scrubbed in a newly constructed Stormwater Treatment Area before entering Everglades National Park.
Most agree that the project has legitimate merit. But as Moret alluded to, there are concerns that the would-be washbasin installed below Okeechobee will not be large enough to handle the dirty job. Since 2017, the overall scope of the project has been downsized because farmland in the proposed EAA, it was determined, could not be taken by eminent domain and could only be purchased from willing sellers. Big Sugar, notably, has been unwilling to part with land to help expand the initiative. But even at its current scope, the project is better than its alternative—which is doing nothing. And there’s no time like the present to be doing something.
Gov. DeSantis has put that act-now sentiment into motion, making completion of the storage reservoir a priority with one of his first executive orders: Achieving More Now For Florida’s Environment. The order instructs the South Florida Water Management District to start the next phase of design work and it pushes the Corps to approve the project on schedule. The only missing link is cash. The State of Florida has pledged funding, but the project requires another $200 million annually from the feds to kick it into gear.
That now looks like a possibility. Earlier this spring President Donald Trump amended his proposed federal budget to include the whole enchilada for Everglades restoration, including the proposed EAA reservoir. (It had originally called for only $63 million.) And on the morning of May 14, POTUS hit Twitter with this: “My Administration will be fighting for $200 million for the Army Corps Everglades restoration work this year. Congress needs to help us complete the world’s largest intergovernmental watershed restoration project ASAP! Good for Florida and good for the environment.”
If Congress approves Trump’s ask, the Everglades will be ready. Moret says that a new reservoir completed over the next two years would stir positive change in Florida Bay within the next four to five. Chittum, too, remains hopeful that the Everglades he remembers will get the water it needs to heal.
“It’ll be exceedingly difficult to win this… because Big Sugar still controls most of the politicians,” he says. “But for the first time in my life I think we have a chance. I think it’s the last chance. It will decide if the Everglades we knew and loved can come back.”